EXCERPT: The Native South

The following has been excerpted from The Native South: New Histories and Enduring Legaciesedited by Tim Alan Garrison and Greg O’Brien (July 2017).

An Interview with Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green

On July 11, 2012, Greg O’Brien conducted the following interview with Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green at their home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


Greg O’Brien (GO): Let’s transition into ethnohistory a little bit and think about ethnohistory as a field and the American Society for Ethnohistory as an organization. First of all, just in your careers, what are some significant ways that ethnohistory—either the organization or ethnohistory as an approach to history—has changed since you first encountered it?

Theda Perdue (TP): I think that when we first encountered ethnohistory, it was dominated by anthropologists. It’s not surprising, I think, that the people who introduced me to ethnohistory were anthropologists, not historians. In the era in which I was in graduate school, people were much more disciplinarily focused, that is, you just didn’t read very much outside your own discipline. Things changed very quickly. As historians began to publish books that put Indians at the center of the story, other historians began to be inspired. I will never forget the first Western History Association meeting I attended, and I didn’t know anybody much there. I knew John Finger from the University of Tennessee and that was probably about it. My book had just come out, so this would have been 1979 or 1980, and I was either delivering a paper or commenting on a session. The room was absolutely packed although the topic was something on southern Indians and didn’t have anything really to do with the West. After the session was over, I asked, “Why would all these people come to this session?” And someone said: “They came to hear you. They’ve read your book.” I didn’t normally go to the Western History meeting, I’m a southern historian, and people began to engage me in conversations about how you write about the South and how you put Indians at the center of what is essentially a southern story. They were grappling with how you put Indians at the center of western history in ways other than the Indian wars. I think it was the first time I realized that somehow I had stumbled onto something that was really new. I was using the methods of historians—in particular, archival research—but I was thinking like an anthropologist. That is how I first realized that writing the history of Native people was in the process of changing.

Michael Green (MG): It always seemed to me as though it changed very slowly. Ethnohistory meetings continued to be very heavily influenced, if not dominated, by anthropologists, and you can’t hardly blame them because if they didn’t do history they’d have to do anthropology, and who wants to do that. Back in the old days, when I first started going to the ethnohistory meetings in the early and mid-1970s, it was just awful because everybody was an anthropologist, they were asking dumb questions and offering dumb answers, and it was just really frustrating.

GO: Can you think of any examples?

MG: Well, the only example that I can think of that’s concrete was the session at the Ethnohistory meeting, which I think was in Albany, that was focused on Rutgers historian Calvin Martin. His book, Keepers of the Game: Indian–Animal Relationships and the Fur Trade, had just come out, and there was this session about it. I think virtually all the panelists were anthropologists, and they just shredded Calvin. Calvin’s book was wrong, and Calvin was so arrogant that he could not possibly engage in conversation about it. I was sitting right behind him in the audience, and he started bouncing up and down in his chair as they came one right after another. These anthropologists were telling him he was wrong about this, he was wrong about that. And you nearly could see the smoke pouring out of Calvin’s ears. He had read the stuff ahead of time, so he had prepared comments, but they were incoherent. I think that part of the reason for ganging up on Calvin was that Calvin had presented an idea that rested on no factual evidence that anybody could discover and therefore it needed to be shot down. But I think that the enthusiasm that these people brought to their task was largely based upon a kind of disciplinary chauvinism.

TP: In those days anthropologists thought no more of us than we thought of them. I mean Ethnohistory was really in many ways a very tense meeting because it was almost as though the historians and the anthropologists were speaking different languages.

MG: And we dug in our heels and we, we resisted mightily . . .

TP: I think looking at the divide between the historians and the anthropologists is kind of hard for someone of younger generations to imagine, but anthropologists were very suspicious of historians because we didn’t do fieldwork. They were very suspicious of whether you could write an Indian-centered history out of the archives, out of the documents, since documents were generally not—or they believed that documents were not—generated by Indians. I think the historians were very suspicious of anthropologists because they had this idea that anthropologists just went out on a kind of lark in Indian Country, came back, and wrote something up. There presumably was no documentary evidence to support it, and they had not done scholarship in the way that historians understood it. There was real methodological divide. The footnote war was really over a lot more than footnotes. It resulted in a deep and searching consideration of what ethnohistory was and what we should be doing.

MG: The problem with ethnohistory was that anthropologists and historians had not been trained in ethnohistorical methodology. I mean we all came to this from the outside. One of the things I think is that in the 1970s, the whole idea of the ethnographic present was for the first time really being questioned. Cultural anthropologists found themselves in a situation where the old verities were being challenged, and it wasn’t real clear what the new verities were going to be. What they found particularly disconcerting was the idea that change over time could be documented or inferred on the basis of evidence. That, of course, was what historians were doing. And therefore what historians were engaged in was not only doing scholarship that didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to cultural anthropologists, they were also doing the scholarship that seemed to verify the sort of intellectual changes in cultural anthropology that were taking place and disrupting things.

TP: At the same time historians were abandoning white man’s history. The impetus for that came out of African American history, but it affected everything, not just Indian history, but labor history, women’s history, immigration history, et cetera. All this comes out of this attempt to curtail the writing of elitist Whiggish history and focus instead on the diversity of the past and the role that people who were not in positions of power played. Both disciplines were really in a period of enormous changes.

By the mid- to late 1970s many American Indian peoples were taking control of their own pasts. They were increasingly regulating access to their reservations and to their intellectual resources, or those over which they had control. The kind of participant observation that anthropologists had been able to do a generation earlier was becoming less and less possible as Indians began to say, “Wait a minute. We don’t want to be the mere subjects of your academic research. We don’t want to be the fuel that fires your academic career. We want control over what goes on in our communities.” Tribal self-determination meant that both historians and anthropologists had to do things differently.

MG: One result was that whole generations of graduate students of cultural anthropology were driven into the library and were forced to write dissertations out of the archives because they were prevented from going into Native communities.

TP: And at the same time historians were forced to take Indian viewpoints into account. This shift away from white man’s history was partly driven by Indian people’s insistence that their voices had to be incorporated in this history. It was a really exciting period.